The highlight of my recent four-day trip to New York – a trip crammed with visits to the U.S. Open, a Mets game at Citi Field, a Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim, a guided bus tour through Uptown and Harlem and revisiting my three favorite places in Manhattan (Bryant Park, Central Park and Grand Central Station) – was actually the overnight train ride home.

Exiting the Lake Shore Limited at South Bend, Indiana.

I have written before about the magic of train travel. I have described the powerful feelings it evokes and tried to nail down why it is so mesmerizing and even important. But I’ve never really subjected the experience to careful analysis. What is it about trains that I so love?

Riding home 18 hours Monday and Tuesday on Amtrak train # 49, the famed and historic Lake Shore Limited, from the Moynihan Train Hall in midtown Manhattan to Union Station just west of the Loop, I had the time, incentive and source material at hand to figure it out. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Historical. As a kid I took my first overnight train ride from New York City to summer camp in Harrison, Maine. It was a revelation, a bursting plenitude of sensual delights: the visual appeal of riding through upstate New York and New England, the sense of freedom to a 10-year-old, the sounds of the horn blowing and the clickety-clack of the wheels on the tracks. There is only one first time, and this one was transformative.

2. Mathematical. This may sound strange but I’m convinced there’s a geometric mystique to trains. Tracks are of course parallel lines, but in the far distance they converge, forming a visual triangle. Curious: parallel lines that intersect both in the distance and in the future.

3. Tranquil. Plane rides are fraught with anxiety. The long lead times to get to the airport, the lengthy lines and inconvenience of security checks, the crammed and claustrophobic feeling inside the cabin, the surge of fear on takeoff and landing, the terror of sudden and unexpected turbulence: it’s an experience endured but not enjoyed. Trains are a romp by comparison, a vacation from all that. Everything about a train trip spells tranquility. Take a moment worthy of Monet, the morning sunlight dappling the tassels a pale orange in the cornfields across west Indiana.

Train car attendant Leroy, a friendly and helpful Amtrak veteran. Credit: Les Jacobson

4. The accidental convergences. You can meet people on planes and buses, of course, but not like trains, where the gentle rolling of the cars, the length of the journeys and the assigned seating in the dining car encourage and stimulate new connections. I chatted with Mary and Linda in the sleeping car across from mine. They were headed to the Chicon Sci-Fi convention in Chicago. Mary casually mentioned an episode on a plane trip to London during which her heart stopped for eight seconds – an A-fib emergency – and she passed out. Linda thought she was dead. When Mary came to they moved her to first class so she could lie down. “it’s OK now,” Mary said cheerfully, “I have a pacemaker.”

Our train car attendant, Leroy, told me of working for Amtrak more than 20 years. It has it downsides, he said. “But I enjoy the camaraderie.”

5. The imaginative convergences. Train rides give passengers the time and opportunity to witness how others live. From your window you see and ponder backyards and junk yards, homes and factories, stores and streets, power stations and schools, all streaming by in a rich and constant parade of images and people. What are their lives and their work and their experiences like?

Monet-like imagery in the pale orange of the tassels in the rolling cornfields of western Indiana. Credit: Les Jacobson

Seeing how others live helps train the eye and imagination to pierce the veil of our ignorance of and indifference to other people. Of course this requires a leap of imagination that one could dismiss as trivial and superficial. How deep and profound can these fleeting moments of curiosity be?

But making the effort is a step toward understanding, something desperately needed in the chasm that divides red and blue America.

For all that, Amtrak is no joy ride. The sink in my compartment didn’t work, my dinner order got mixed up, and I didn’t get the sleeping car I wanted despite booking the ticket seven weeks in advance. No one could explain why.

But these are trivialities compared to the riches of relaxation and visual delight on every train ride I’ve ever taken. Most importantly, with every click of the track and sound of the horn we got access to a different America, one that deserves study and understanding.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...

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  1. It’s long been well-known that a train uses far less fuel and makes far less pollution per passenger mile than plane, car, or bus. As a National Park Service Trails and Rails volunteer ranger teaching on 3 Amtrak routes for a decade, I often saw much of what you describe as we walked by the seats or held forth in the cafe or sightseer lounge car. I also saw crews coping with difficulties rooted in large part in historic under-investment in infrastructure and maintenance compared to highways and air. I hope to be back in the air once and on the rails several times next year.